"My parents went to Melilla in 1979. A woman there gave them a baby. It was me. They gave her an envelope in return. They paid 350,000 pesetas [2,100 euros] for me," says Mari Carmen.
Mari Carmen learned the truth about her origins from her mother after she realized that she looked different from most other children who played with her in the Valencian town of Ontinyent. Now 34, Mari Carmen has decided to tell her story — a story she shares with at least 28 other babies taken from the Spanish exclave of Melilla and northern Morocco, who were sold between 1978 and 1984 to childless couples in the peninsula.
Her energetic voice and easy smile break just for an instant when she recalls her "happy" childhood with her adoptive parents — who are now both deceased - and the rest of the family. Mari Carmen says she wants to quell "the gossip" and go public with her experience because she suspects there are more people in the same situation.
Mari Carmen unveiled her story after the Civil Guard released the preliminary results of an investigation into a baby-trafficking ring launched in February 2011, when two other women from the same town, population 37,000, filed a complaint after finding out they'd been adopted.
Before that, both of these women — María José S. and María José C. — had turned for help to Enrique Vila, a lawyer specializing in baby theft cases, to find out who their real parents were. They already knew from their adoptive families that they had been obtained through irregular channels and that their birth certificates were false. Vila, then a lawyer for Anadir, a support group, launched a civil procedure in Melilla to trace his clients' biological origins.
Now, a joint investigation by the Civil Guard and the courts has uncovered a ring that bought babies in Melilla and Morocco and sold them to couples on the mainland. It is just the latest chapter in a drama that extended throughout Spain between 1959 and 1987 at least. The wider case is being investigated after 2,000 people filed complaints for baby thefts across the country.
Operation Oculta, the branch of the case focusing on Melilla and Morocco, has charged 19 people — a further 12 suspects are deceased — including adoptive parents, intermediaries, midwives and a doctor, according to sources familiar with the investigation. They are being charged with crimes such as unlawful imprisonment and forgery of public documents.
One of the people facing charges, an elderly woman named Isabel who acted as a go-between, appeared on a television program a couple of years ago, suggesting that she might have introduced as many as 14 babies into Ontinyent. In this textile town, the older residents are familiar with the story - especially those who live in the neighborhood of San Rafael, home to Isabel and one of her two daughters, "also adopted," notes a woman at a local bar.
"I used to work with her husband at a factory and I remember how he once enthusiastically brought us a newborn to show her off. It was a known fact around here that his wife had contacts and that she helped bring children to couples who couldn't have them."
An elderly man sitting next to her adds that the children "have had a life that's possibly better than the one they would have had back home."
"They lived just like everyone else here," adds another resident of San Rafael.
Mari Carmen can only recall one episode of racism, and that was at a nightclub when she was 16. She was there with a Peruvian friend who warned her that they were being surrounded by skinheads. A cousin pulled her out of the predicament. At the same age, another cousin was the first to speak candidly with Mari Carmen. "When I asked her if she remembered seeing my mother pregnant with me, she said no."
Mari Carmen stays in touch with at least six other adopted girls from Ontinyent whom she met through a website specializing in stolen babies. She understands why they would rather not go public - some of their adoptive parents are still alive. Mari Carmen herself has not filed any complaints yet, although she is considering it.
"We and our adoptive parents are the victims. We are not turning against them, although the law charges them too, rather confusedly. They should be witnesses. Some parents, who are already elderly, are afraid they could go to jail, but that's not what it's about. Some crimes have already prescribed, and others, well, it remains to be seen," says Mari Carmen, who is here with her wife Sandra, both unemployed.
Her father went to have her registered in Ontinyent when she was still a newborn, and when he was asked for the baby's documents, his reaction was to claim them from Isabel, the go-between, who did not have any. In the end, Mari Carmen's birth documents were not regularized by midwives or doctors who were part of the ring, as is often the case. It was people close to her who finally got her on the local register. "I'm sure there were many things he did not know," she adds.
"He was a wonderful man. I was the apple of his eye," adds Mari Carmen about her adoptive father. "Every time I asked my mother about my origins and how I was adopted, he would start crying."